Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Springing into action....!

I can’t believe Spring is finally here and I’ve just surfaced for air after a rather hectic start to the year juggling a busy work schedule with moving house.
The move came just a few weeks before Aintree to which we returned for the third year in a row for the John Smith’s Aintree Legends Race in aid of The Bob Champion Cancer Trust.  Every year, we like to have a few new names in the Legends race and this year we were lucky enough to be able to add the newly retired Hills twins, George Duffield and Kevin Darley to our stellar line up of the old guard.  The Hills twins brought Frankie Dettori along on the day, which went down a treat with the huge Aintree crowds (it has to be said, noticeably just slightly more conservatively dressed in the arctic northern temperatures!)

As always Frankie works the crowd!
We seem to have become part of the weighing room furniture on Grand National day and Lucy Wilkinson, Bob and I thoroughly enjoy working on this race, something which both the jockeys and the public love and which sets off the day in a wholly good and positive way.  Needless to say, the awareness it brings to the charity, and the donations that come in as a result, make it achieve its objectives on all levels and make the stress of juggling the horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners completely worthwhile (I think!).

Being the first race on the day, Jeremy and I then managed to escape from the crowds to go and watch the John Smith’s Grand National out on the course next to The Chair with the injured Choc Thornton and Ollie Wardle, Alan King’s Assistant Trainer.  ‘AP’ was ‘unseated’ next to us and it was noticeable how forgiving the fence was in its new format.  In previous years, with a mistake such as that this horse would have come down, but with the new fence structure, it managed to stay on its feet with poor AP getting a rare ‘U’ next to his name!  The fact that all 40 horses and riders came back unscathed proved what an incredible job Aintree and the BHA have done working with the RSPCA to ensure that horse welfare is paramount.  There can never be a ‘safe’ horse race, but at least for once, our show case race was highlighted in all its glory and those who knock it were silenced for another year.

The Chair - note how far the spruce extends on the landing side!

Jonjo O’Neill again ‘rode out’ with Bob Champion and cantered in front of the stands before the Legends race, so we are thrilled to be organising a dinner ‘An Evening with Jonjo O’Neill’ on Saturday 28th September later this year.  In a similar vein to the dinner we organised with Sir Henry Cecil last year, the heart of the evening will be a Q+A with Jonjo between courses conducted by Mike Cattermole and focusing on Jonjo’s extraordinary life and career.  Details can be found on www.bobchampion.org.uk and work for this should keep me as busy as ever over the summer.
This iconic image we are using for 'An Evening with Jonjo O'Neill'
The dark side of racing was displayed fully this year with the terrible accident that befell the Irish jockey JT McNamara on the Thursday of the Cheltenham Festival meeting.  Working closely with Lisa Hancock, CEO of the IJF, Dr Adrian McGoldrick, Irish Turf Club Senior Officer, Julia Mangan, our almoner who was on the ground at Frenchay Hospital helping JT’s family, plus other involved parties, my role was to help manage the information being delivered to the press during this difficult time.  Having dealt with numerous ‘crisis’ situations in a professional capacity in the past, I am used to intrusive media but from a PR perspective it is a volte face type situation.  Usually, I need the media to support the work I do and write about the products and services I am promoting.  But in this situation, and certainly in the early stages where things are extremely sensitive for the people involved, I have to almost ‘ignore’ the media and not take investigative calls.  It is an alien concept to a PR and one which you struggle with when taking calls and getting back to people immediately, is something that becomes second nature on a daily and hourly basis. 
I hope though that we managed to strike the right balance between putting the family first but keeping everyone informed, and it does have to be said that the racing media I deal with every day were extremely respectful, and the other more intrusive media were only doing their job in the news driven world in which we operate.
The whole situation just served to make me more impressed with the magnificent set up that is the Injured Jockeys Fund and our almoners all over the country who drop their own lives at a minute’s notice to provide this incredible support to the families of the injured jockeys.  Racing is truly blessed to have such a charity and it is exciting to be part of the planning team as the charity moves towards its 50th anniversary in 2014.

Another slightly difficult situation I have been involved in in previous months is the launch of Henry Cecil: Trainer of Genius, Brough Scott’s portrait of the Warren Place maestro.  Having spent time with Henry and Jane at Warren Place myself, it has been personally as well as professionally upsetting that Brough and Henry have publicly ‘fallen out’ over the book.  I hope that in time the public reaction to this masterpiece will negate some of the tension.  Sir Henry Cecil is someone I hugely admire and I personally came away from reading the book only having this view enforced a million fold.  I also find Brough Scott’s writing and exquisite turn of phrase unparalleled and I know how much effort he put into getting the right balance in the writing of this book.  My friend Jilly Cooper summed it up in a way that only she can when she said:
I loved this book.  With any biography written while the subject is alive you have to accept the Brough with the smooth.  This is not a glow job - but what emerges is a fabulously entertaining portrait of a glorious and truly heroic man. Three cheers for Sir Henry!  Bravo Brough.”
I can’t wait to spend a few days with Jilly at our favourite Bedford Lodge Hotel in Newmarket in July as she embarks on her latest novel based on bloodstock and flat racing.

The book!
Finally, last week I was also in Newmarket for the Martin Wills Writing Awards, at which John Inverdale presented this year’s three winners with their awards.  In their 21st year, these awards have launched the careers of some of the industry’s top journalists and are another example of just how much racing has to offer as an industry and career.  The winning entries, (viewable on www.willswritingawards.co.uk) all original and showing such talent from their young authors are really worth a read (but be prepared to be a little shocked at some of the rather dark subject matter!)

John Inverdale with the Martin Wills Awards winners 2013
Jeremy and I managed to get away to Spain for a few days in January to stay with Richard Dunwoody, who is doing brilliantly in his new role as a very talented photographer, and we can’t wait to return there for a week in May to lie by the pool and recharge our batteries before the next phase of 2013 kicks into motion! Happy happy days!